Hurricane Katrina, back in 2005, is often blamed for the demise of passenger rail service from New Orleans to Jacksonville, and all points in between. Now, more than ten years later, AmTrak and various local community leaders say it’s time to bring that service back. Recently, AmTrak conducted a rail inspection publicity tour to gauge support for restoration of passenger rail service on that route.
WFSU’s Local Routes crew boarded the train in Chipley to see how the tour was going.
AmTrak spokesperson Marc Magliari talked about the turnout: “We have had huge turnouts and huge flags, too – all the way up and down the railroad since we left New Orleans yesterday morning. People want this train. People want better service than was in the past. So do we. Congress passed a law back in December which sets in motion a way to pay for that service. It hasn’t been paid for yet… but there is a way. We’re looking here on the railroad today for what changes might be needed to improve the railroad so we can run well and not interfere with the freight trains. And we want to run here daily, not the way it was – two or three days a week. A daily train makes a real difference in a community. It makes a difference in people using it for tourism. It makes a difference in people using it for family travel – and it makes a difference in using it period, because you don’t have to remember…’is Tuesday a Train Day?’”
In Chipley, under a bright sun, former Tallahassee mayor John Marks asked the crowd “Are we ready for a train to come across North Florida?” and the crowd responded enthusiastically in the affirmative. US Representative Corrine Brown from the Florida 5th District took the mic and said “We’re gonna get this train and we are gonna get it going and are we all on board?” The crowd cheers. She continued, “Mr. Mayor… where is Mr. Mayor? Does that mean we’re going to have a stop here in Chipley?” and the mayor responds, “Yes, Ma’am!” to more cheering.
There were 14 stops from Louisiana to Florida over two days, with assorted AmTrak and industry representatives, Southern Rail commissioners, and federal and local politicos variously riding all or portions of the track to survey enthusiasm for the return of passenger rail service.
On board, with the countryside going by the windows, Representative Corrine Brown admitted “I was concerned because… Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana… they turned out. So I was concerned that we didn’t fall down in Florida, and we’ve been good. This morning at 7:30 in Pensacola, it was packed!”
“I got on in New Orleans and I’m going the entire distance to Jacksonville, Florida and this has truly been a great experience,” noted Susan Smith, City Councilwoman for Atmore, Alabama.
Tallahassee City Commissioner Scott Maddox said “We don’t have anything that goes along the I-10 corridor so under this plan, Tallahasseans would be able to jump on the train, go to New Orleans… or jump on the train and go to Jacksonville or stops in between. When we roll into Tallahassee, I want them to feel the enthusiasm. I hope we get passenger rail service – and I think we will.”
Politicians weren’t the only ones along for the ride. Amy Griffin and her son Andrew of Chipley Florida found a seat where they could look back on where they had been. Andrew was particularly excited, saying “I like this train. Oh my goodness, look! We’re far away from the station!”
In Tallahassee, Mayor Andrew Guillam had something to say on the subject as well, “Florida is a donor State to the Federal Government. We give more in taxes than we bring down to Florida. So we want them to know that we want some of those federal dollars brought back down to our community and we want them to fund this rail line again.”
Knox Ross, with the Southern Rail Commission said “We have a plan. We’re gonna execute it and we’re gonna do everything we can to get this done. But it cannot be done without you and your being here today is so critical to getting this put forward.” He began a chant, “Fired up…” and the crowd responded, “Ready to roll!”
John Marks told the crowd, “This has been authorized by Congress, but authorization means nothing without appropriations. Authorization means nothing unless you have the money. This is why this is so very important for you all to show Congress that we mean business.”
Joe McHugh, Senior Vice President of the AmTrak Government Affairs Corporate Communications was impressed by the turnout. “That’s beautiful! Who’s running the city? This is fantastic, I mean… this is a wonderful day. We’ve had a wonderful roll through Florida. We had a great day yesterday. You guys are gonna make this happen. We’re gonna be stopping at this station again soon.”
“The more ways you can get in and out of North Florida, the more ways you can get in and out of Tallahassee, the more connectivity we have with our neighbors down the line either going south or west, the better off we are,” said Tallahassee City Commissioner Gil Ziffer, “I think we have, more than anything when we work together on something, we are more successful. We’re North Florida. From an economic development standpoint, if we stand alone we don’t have as much success as if we work together. And by having this connectivity on rail, it’s gonna bring all our communities a little tighter, greater opportunity for economic development. We need that and we’re going to work towards that.”